Stealing from the Saracens: the forgotten debt European architecture owes to Islamic pioneers

Diana Darke’s new book charts the interplay between western and Arab cultures over the centuries through their architecture

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Monumental buildings such as London's Palace of Westminster, Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris or even the unfinished Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona loom so large in the West's collective imagination and across its cities' skylines that there could hardly be a more obvious manifestation of European identity.

However, look a little closer at their pointed arches, their towers’ elaborate registers and the effusive facades, and the evidence of the debt that Western architecture owes to the Arab world becomes obvious, even ubiquitous.

The growth of Christian architecture from its earliest beginnings in fourth-century Syria through to the influence on the West of Muslim builders in the ensuing centuries is investigated in the new book Stealing From the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, by Diana Darke.

It explores architectural concepts and styles and how they passed from vibrant Middle Eastern capitals such as Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, via Muslim Spain, Venice and Sicily into Europe. It also describes how medieval crusaders, pilgrims and merchants encountered Arab Muslim culture on their way to the holy land.

It is a history that has been, at best, forgotten and, at worst, wilfully ignored. The impetus for the book, Darke explains, came after the fire that tore through Notre-Dame cathedral in 2019.

“The reaction to that fire just made me angry, I am afraid,” she said at the launch of her book at an online seminar hosted by the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

Cover of Stealing from the Saracens by Diana Darke Courtesy Hurst
Cover of Stealing from the Saracens by Diana Darke Courtesy Hurst

“When everybody was trying to say this was a great symbol of French identity, I was thinking: 'Wait a minute, don’t people realise that this building is not nearly as European as people think?'”

The next morning, Darke tweeted a picture of Notre-Dame's forerunner, a fifth-century church much of which still stands in Syria's Idlib province.

“Notre-Dame's architectural design, like all Gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from #Syria's Qalb Lozeh 5th century church,” she wrote.

“Crusaders brought the 'twin tower flanking the rose window' concept back to Europe in the 12th century.”

Darke was further inspired to write the book during a visit to the Mezquita in Cordoba, an eighth-century Andalusian mosque that was converted into a cathedral after the expulsion of Spain’s Muslim rulers.

“I was so shocked when I went to Cordoba to see the level of cultural appropriation at the Mezquita and the fact that the Syrian origins have simply not been talked about,” she said. “If you didn't know, you could honestly not be aware that it had originally been a mosque.”

Islam's influence on European architecture continued as the Muslim world also changed. This is seen in the Mamluk influence imported to Venice from Cairo or the way Ottoman-era structures inspired Sir Christopher Wren's construction of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Wren himself observed that the Gothic style that flourished in Europe in the Middle Ages would be more aptly referred to as Saracen style.

The misnomer would return with the Gothic Revival, a style seen in structures such as London’s Houses of Parliament as well as churches and other buildings built across Europe in the 19th century. The term could not be more misleading, Darke believes.

Pic Shows: Diana Darke author who has bought a home in Damascus, Syria. Pic: STUART CLARKE. Jan 2009. For HOME.
Diana Darke, author of Stealing from the Saracens courtesy Hurst 

“Somehow that term has stuck, which is so clearly wrong. I mean, the Goths did not originate any of this stuff,” she said.

The message contained within Stealing From the Saracens has been widely welcomed by an array of religious and secular figures.

Lord Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said Darke’s book “shows how our cultures – including our religious cultures – interact and interweave in ways that challenge all kinds of assumptions we might make about our history”.

Williams went on to say that it “poses essential questions about the possibility of a shared and human civilisation in the future”.

Darke explained that she was attempting to highlight the long history of connectivity between world cultures.

"What I'm trying to show in this book is the way that all cultures are interdependent and that everything builds on everything else that was there before," she said. "All these cultures interact in ways that we really need to understand.

“And looking back across the centuries, there is no doubt whatsoever that an awful lot more came to the West.”

The message could hardly be more essential when in so much of the world, not least in Europe, nationalism and Islamophobia are on the rise.